Purportedly responsible for –but never convicted of — as many as 50 brutal murders along “Hippie Trail” from Afghanistan to Thailand in the 1970s, Charles Sobhraj, a charismatic persona with a flamboyant history, is nimbly sketched in Jan Wellman’s eponymous documentary. Slickly entertaining feature (also available in a 53-minute TV cut) doesn’t deliver on its “how to be friends with” subtitle, however, and its tabloid-pop, even flippant tenor may strike some as in poor taste. Broadcast sales, nonetheless, should be brisk.
Vietnamese-Indian by birth, the multilingual Sobhraj often posed as a Parisian gem dealer (among many aliases) when meeting young travelers whom he’d wine, dine, and invite as stay-over guests to his luxury apartment. Many were never seen again, their stabbed, charred, poisoned or strangled corpses later found in rural areas.
Sobhraj has spent much of the last three decades in various jails on many charges including passport theft and drugging — which he admits to, albeit without discernable regret. In regard to the the murders, however, he’s far more evasive, and, despite a mountain of circumstantial evidence, absolute proof has eluded investigators.
A couple of years ago, however, during an ill-advised return visit to Nepal, he was arrested and given a life-sentence.
Pic’s subtitle, unfortunately, proves a ruse, and Wellman doesn’t get anything especially revealing from Sobhraj during their interview. Authorities and acquaintances he’d flummoxed over the years provide some absorbing input — especially in feature-length edit, which contains revelation that he’d recently got involved with illegal arms dealers to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
But, docu avoids interviewing any relatives or intimates of his purported victims, or those who survived his poisonings. This provides a comfortable distance from the cold-blooded, often gruesome murders, despite eye blink dramatic re-enactments.
“Sobhraj” needs that distancing to get away with some dubious artistic choices: Animated credits that riff on “Catch Me as You Can’s” opening global-intrigue cartoon, kitschy musical choices (“Je Ne Regret Rien”), and a curiously jaunty, ironical overall tone that seems to trivialize the horrific nature of the subject’s crimes. Whether viewers find end result as distasteful as it is diverting will be a matter of personal taste.
Presentation is highly polished, Kim Finn’s editing flashy to an arguable fault.